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Iraqi Expatriates Cast First Ballots

An Iraqi man prepares to vote in Australia today as his family looks on Prague, 28 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iraqi expatriates are voting today in national elections two days before the 30 January poll within Iraq.

Some 280,000 Iraqi expatriates in 36 cities and 14 different countries are registered for the first elections in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Iraqi expatriate vote is taking place all over the world from 28-30 January amid tight security measures and relatively low numbers of registered voters.

At best, just 20 percent of the 1.2 million eligible Iraqis living abroad will turn out for the vote.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) is organizing the expatriate vote to elect a 275-member National Assembly. Some 253 observers have been accredited to monitor the vote process abroad.

The first Iraqi votes took place in Australia, where roughly 11,000 expatriates are registered. Voting day turned into a celebration at one polling station in Sydney.

The largest single contingent of expatriate voters is in Iran, with nearly 61,000 registered. Casting her vote at a Tehran polling station, Jomah Hassan told Reuters she wants to go home to Iraq and that the elections may provide an opportunity.

"I'd love to return to my own country," Hassan said. "I am voting for the independence of my country and I hope to be able to return and help with its reconstruction."

About 31,000 Iraqis are registered in Sweden. Swan Kader, an Iraqi Kurd living in the Scandinavian country, told Reuters that the elections will be a big step for Iraq and Iraqi Kurds alike.

"Somewhere we have to start again and build the whole political infrastructure in Iraq," Kader said. "I think this election will provide the foundation for that infrastructure. I believe it is also a big step for Iraqi Kurds, and I am a Kurd. We must take part in this election in order to build a new federation in Iraq."

Susan Asaad, the election coordinator in Sweden, told Reuters that people are enthusiastic about the vote.

"People are very happy and excited. When I came here this morning -- early, as you know it starts here at 6 o'clock -- people were already gathering at the entrance waiting for us to open the center at 7," Asaad said. "And they were very happy and excited because this is a very great moment for them, a historic moment for them. As you can see, people are here and numbers are increasing."

Voting is also under way elsewhere in Europe and the United States. More than 30,000 people from Britain's Iraqi community of 150,000 are casting ballots in London, Manchester, and Glasgow. More than 25,000 are registered in both Germany and the United States.
The largest single contingent of expatriate voters is in Iran, with nearly 61,000 registered.

In France, where more than 10,000 Iraqis are believed to be living, only 1,050 are registered to vote.

Observers say the low voter turnout may be due to fear of reprisals against family members still living in Iraq.

The run-up to the ballot has been plagued by insurgent violence aimed at intimidating voters, candidates, and election officials.

In the Middle East, the largest number of voters is in Jordan with 20,166 registered to vote. Nearly 12,600 Iraqis registered to vote in the United Arab Emirates, 16,5811 in Syria, and 4,187 in Turkey.

IOM officials say the results of the expatriate ballots will be announced in Baghdad on 5 February. It is still unclear when the national results will be made public.